With the release of “Ghosts of Saltmarsh“, the D&D world has been given some much needed rules for maritime adventures. It includes a classic series of adventures based around the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the city of Saltmarsh. Traditionally a home to brigands, seadogs and pirates – a delight for characters of every class. It’s a place swimming in intrigue but maybe you need a little something to kick off your adventure. Every good adventure story begins with some kind of focus, often something tangible that initiates the adventure. In “Treasure Island” it takes the form of the treasure map Billy Bones gives to Jim Hawkins. In “Pirates of the Caribbean” it’s the cursed coin.I’ve said before that often the best source for hooks or MacGuffin’s for your adventure come from the real world. So in case you need something interesting to get your players on board with your plot, allow me to offer you a helping hand.
In 2015, a family was cleaning out their grandparents’ attic when they found something unusual. It was a hand in a box. It was one of those finds that might horrify some while to others it may seem like the find of a lifetime. Inside a box was a map, a photo of their great grandparents on the wedding day, a mummified hand wearing a ring and several coins carefully mounted inside. Now, let’s ignore the wedding photograph for a moment and just take in what we have. A map, a dried up hand, a ring and some coins which have very obviously been collected together in what could be regarded as a ritualistic fashion. In a maritime based game, this artifact is overflowing with potential. Pirates and maps go hand in hand. Keep in mind, while your game may deal with pirates this may not, indeed ought not to be a map to buried treasure. Your players will immediately jump to that conclusion without actually studying the map so consider making the map to something more interesting or perhaps an otherwise unremarkable map but one littered with notes or esoteric symbols useful later in your story.
The mummified hand could be a sacrifice for a spell or physical reminder of a bond made or broken. Perhaps it is an actual ‘Hand of Glory’, one whose owner may want it back. Dark bargains can cause all sorts of trouble and sometimes the sea does give up her dead. The ring it wears could serve in much the same function as the hand itself. What if the ring is the trope-laden “treasure map” or its the ring that has sealed the dark pact the hand’s owner made with some unimaginable horror. If dark magic isn’t your thing, perhaps it is the signet of the group or scoundrel the now one handed man crossed.
A random collection of coins could be the fee for sinister magic or money owed some seafaring devil. Far worse have been done to rogues and buccaneers for far less. What if the coins were the compass in your story? The doubloon in “The Goonies” served as the tool used to point the way to the beginning of the story. They key to the treasure, rather than the treasure itself. If you wish to include the wedding photo, consider something such as a sketch or note from, say a recent ancestor of a character. A personal touch that gives cause for a character to have a vested interest in solving this mystery based on their backstory.
This curious artifact, regardless of its real world history or authenticity, lends itself readily to a pirate or maritime themed game and if you want to keep things more or less simple you have a box with a treasure map, some coins and a scary hand – pretty cut and dry. However, I would suggest that if you decide to use this object, use what is here to defy the standard pirate story tropes. DON’T make the map a lead to buried treasure, DON’T make the hand be just a severed hand, DON’T let the coins just be coins. Use the elements of this piece to buck the trope. The map isn’t the map, it’s the compass. The coins aren’t a hint at the scope of the whole treasure, they’re the key to the lock. The hand is the map, the ring is the blood money.
No matter what type of storytelling devices you decide to use, always make an effort to take existing tropes, motifs and cliches and tweak them enough so your players never know what’s coming and to always second guess everything you offer to them. It will keep them engaged and captivated, off their phones and in the game. Keep them guessing and you’ll keep them coming back.
Until next time, keep to the code…